#1141: “Help with De-Escalating Arguments when Dr. Jekyll Turns into Mr. ‘Abandonment/Control Issues’ Hyde”

Behind a cut for controlling and emotionally abusive behavior.

Dear Cap,

My husband (he/him) and I (she/her) have been together for five years. I’d say 95% of the time things are great. We’re really in tune, we share values and interests and have the same long term goals. The problem is the other 5% (maybe once every 3 months), in which I feel like I’ve entered a bizarre relationship version of “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” where the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.

I think I’ve finally nailed the issue down to: every few months, any perceived rejection/abandonment of him by me will result in long and confusing fights. This can be something like someone else is taking too much of my attention or it can be that I disagree with an idea/thought/offer he has. The fights usually surprise me because of how small the thing is that triggers the fight.

Once we were walking around a city with one of his coworkers. I was talking to the coworker and according to my husband, I “edged him out” of the conversation by physically turning away from him or making it so that we couldn’t walk three abreast on the sidewalk and he could be part of the conversation. He pulled me towards him and said something to the effect of, “You’re my wife so you should be walking with me.” It was weird and uncomfortable and when I tried talking to him about it later he launched into why he was mad at me over it, because the guy was a slimy dirtbag (he was, no doubt) who, because of my behavior, would tell everyone at work that I wanted to sleep with him. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I have RBF and if I’m not smiling or my voice “sounds flat” he’ll start insisting that there’s something “wrong” and I should tell him what it is. (There may not have been anything, but after repeatedly being drilled on what’s “wrong” when it’s just my face, I end up in a pretty foul mood. I’m also now kind of paranoid about my face.) This may not end up being the fight, but I can generally anticipate at that point that he’s going to react poorly to something later on and there will be a fight about some other new thing and during said fight he’ll insist that it’s my fault because I was “already in a bad mood.”

He’s like the guy in #674, except that if I say any version of, “I’m good, thanks” or “I hear you but I like what I’m doing”, I’m going to get a tirade about how I “never accept his help” and “don’t know how to play as a team” and how “I’m so defensive!” and “he’s trying to help me and I’m refusing” and I “categorically reject any suggestion that he has just because he’s the one who gives it to me.” There’s no way that I can communicate that I appreciate his input but don’t want it without him launching into an argument. I tried the method of bowing out and saying, “Hey, this seems important to you and you have a lot of opinions on it so why don’t you do it?” and boy oh boy, did that go over poorly. He got extremely nasty. “You need to join a team sport because you have no idea how to work with people” nasty. In my defense (hah, because defensive!), I do A LOT of things because he prefers something a certain way or wants to do something “as a team.” He has a lot of knowledge in areas I’m not familiar with and I’m happy and eager to take his opinion on those things. I’ve taken online classes with him in subjects that I had no interest in, I’ve read books he pushed because he liked it, I’ll take his detailed instructions on all kinds of things but all of this is forgotten in the face of a single “rejection.”

Recently, we were walking along a sidewalk towards our car. I saw a sticker on a lamppost that I paused to take a picture of, causing a ten second delay in me walking next to him versus standing behind him. I didn’t tell him that I was stopping, I just stopped. (I figured I’d take the picture then hustle and catch up to him.) This resulted in a fight because I “couldn’t be bothered to tell him I wanted to stop / what if he wanted to see what I was looking at / I left him talking to some stranger who ended up next to him / I always do this to him.” (Note: I wandered off in a museum before which elicited similar diatribes but I guess I just didn’t think about this being the same thing since I was only a few feet behind him?)

One of our last arguments involved a selfie. We took a picture together in front of a well-known artist’s work, and he said, “Well, now everyone is going to think I’m a communist.” I thought he was joking, so I kind of rolled my eyes. This angered him and he insisted that “everyone” would indeed think he was a communist. When it seemed he was serious, I offered to delete the photo. This angered him more. Because I was “taking things too seriously” and “going to the extreme.” I asked how he would have preferred I respond (woo! therapy tools!) and he said that he wasn’t going to “explain the boundaries of normal communication” to me and told me that I was intentionally playing dumb.

He calls me every day on his way home to start telling me about his day, even though I hate talking on the phone. I have expressed this repeatedly. I felt bad not answering the phone when his commute was an hour and he was bored in the car (I work from home) but now his commute is ten minutes long. If I don’t answer the phone when he calls and I call him back, or if I just don’t answer his call, he’ll say something like, “I see you were screening my calls again” or get annoyed/offended that I don’t want to talk and “jokes” that I don’t love him enough to stay on the phone. (Side note: he makes a lot of these kinds of passive aggressive jabs. They drive me up the fucking wall, but if I ask him to please stop with the passive aggressive comments, he either denies that it’s passive-aggressive, insists that I’m over-sensitive and “always assuming the worst” and “taking it too seriously” or says “Fine” and stops for a week, only to continue on.)

If he were to address something I did as, “Hey, that bothered me. Could you not next time?” I’d be cool with it. Maybe I wouldn’t understand it, but I can respect that some things just bother people. I feel like I’m pretty respectful of other people’s feelings. When something bothers him, though, he just launches into “I can’t believe you did X!” followed by a 10-point list as to why what I did was WRONGWRONGWRONG and the many ways it was wrong and how it’s tied to all my other “repeat behaviors” that are WRONGWRONGWRONG.

We’ve talked about how I feel like this behavior is controlling and he gets mad at any suggestion that he’s being controlling. He’ll tell me that I’m telling him he’s awful/abusive because only awful/abusive people do X or flip it back and tell me “I don’t do that; you do that!” There is no “agree to disagree” with any argument and he does these verbal gymnastics until the original discussion is something entirely different from the current argument. If I try and call this out he’ll tell me something like, “that is not a paradigm he operates on” and it’s in my head or tell me that I’m mis-characterizing what he said or intentionally changing the sequence/story/etc. He will complain that he’s not “allowed” to say what he thinks/feels or what’s on his mind. (As far as I can tell, this means that he can’t say what he thinks/feels as bluntly and critical as possible with zero consequence.) He’ll change the thing that he originally expressed bothered him mid-argument, he’ll interrupt me, talk over me, argue with my choice of words and tell me that I “don’t understand what x word means” until we’re having sub-arguments within the argument. After an hour or three I’m so confused and frustrated that I want to tear my hair out. Once I told him that I felt like I was being gas lit and he told me that I didn’t know what that word meant, insisted that I define it and give specific examples, only to interrupt and argue with each one. The only way to end an argument is to tell him flat-out that I’m not arguing anymore and refuse to continue and literally leave the room. At that point he will accuse me of “giving up” and insist that I talk to him because “talking it out with him is the one thing I haven’t tried.” (I have no idea what he thought we were doing the previous 2 hours.)

I don’t bounce back emotionally quickly, which results in further anger that I’m “pouting” and “withdrawing affection.” I’m honestly kind of worried that all of my stonewalling and refusing to talk and emotional withdrawal is an indication that I’m emotionally abusive. It’s two days after our last unresolved argument and I’m still so frustrated and annoyed and burned out by the whole damn thing that I don’t want to be in the same room with him or talk to him, especially because I don’t want to get pulled into another argument. (This indeed happened this morning when we had an argument that got started because he wanted me to call a tailor and see if a dress getting altered could be picked up by him today instead of me getting it tomorrow as had already been arranged. I said I just wanted to pick it up when I’d been told it would be ready tomorrow. Because I was again “categorically rejecting his help when all he’s trying to do is make my life easier,” this escalated into an argument.)

We tried seeing a couple’s counselor at my insistence. We went to her for about a month before she said that we need to see individual counselors for a while before she can work with us together, particularly in light of the fact that I had been struggling with depression. I’ve since been seeing someone weekly; he has not. He claims he can’t make an appointment because of his busy work travel schedule (though, this hasn’t prevented him from making other appointments). Our most recent argument I refused to continue our conversation outside of a counselor’s office. When he reached out to the counselor, the first thing she asked was whether we’ve both been in individual therapy since that was necessary for us to move forward as a couple. He has not responded.

I’ve got a lot (career-wise and financially) hinging on the next couple of years and a divorce would dramatically fuck that up, but I don’t know how long I can keep spending a week every few months riding the crazy train. I’m pretty isolated right now: we share a car, I work from home, we moved last year to a very expensive metropolitan area and I don’t know anyone here. I’m not currently on speaking terms with my parents and my normal sources for meeting people/making friends has been limited by both logistics and injuries.

I’m really worried that I just don’t know how to be a “team player” or operate in a relationship. I worry that maybe I have some serious mood or personality disorder and I don’t realize it, and he’s right – that all this is my fault and if I could figure out the right combination of team player-ing and communication we’d never argue like this again. I had a pretty terrible childhood and for my mental health am not in contact with either of my parents anymore, so I keep worrying that maybe this is all a by-product of not being taught how to human correctly and there’s just something deeply and fundamentally wrong with me that is causing me to take a great relationship and fuck it all up.

I guess maybe I have a few questions: Is there anything else I can do to try and be a better “team player?” Do you have scripts to help me deescalate these arguments shy of walking away from the argument? How do you judge what kind of conflict is normal and healthy in a relationship? When do you know when to throw in the towel? If you are throwing in the towel, when do you know that it’s because you did everything you could and not just because you’re a quitter?

Sincerely,

My Relationship Feels like an Emotional Rubik’s Cube

Hi.

The title of the post is the title of your email to me, and that and the 95% awesome/5% not awesome ratio you use to describe your husband’s behavior is so insightful to me. The story of Jekyll & Hyde plays with the idea of complicity and the fact that these two cannot be separated. Jekyll made Hyde. Jekyll IS Hyde. Or, before we get too abstract & literary, look at it this way: If I make a beautiful giant crockpot full of chili and then I hide a tiny little cat turd inside it, isn’t the whole thing a shit stew now? There’s no amount of that stew that is safe/good/edible anymore.

So it is with abuse.

Your husband has set himself up as the sole authority on online classes you take, books you read, how your face makes expressions, how your voice sounds, how you should walk on sidewalks, when you pick up your clothes from the tailor, whether you want to entertain him every day during his evening commute (consider the podcast, bro), where you are allowed to go in museums and art galleries, how long arguments and discussions should last, what words like gaslighting mean when you know the definition and he doesn’t, and whether you are allowed to stop for a second and look at an interesting sticker you see on the street without informing him or issuing a special invitation for him to also view it first.

If his coworker in your first anecdote is so awful, why was he inflicting this douchecanoe on you in the first place? How is any of what that guy does your fault for not wanting to walk three abreast on a sidewalk?

He does it only every so often, when he’s feeling a certain way, but what if I told you there were marriages and relationships where stuff like this NEVER happened, where it was NEVER okay to constrain someone in the way he is constraining you, where it would NEVER occur to anyone to treat their spouse this way?

And here you’re worried that it’s all your fault somehow, that there’s something deeply wrong with you, that you’re the abusive one, and calling yourself “a quitter” if you don’t want to sign up for infinity more years of your life being dictated to by this guy. The blame and shame you have for yourself is how I know for sure that this is abuse. You are communicating just fine, and yet he has made you doubt and blame yourself.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

You are not the problem.

He is controlling and emotionally abusive. The parts that are good about the relationship are real (they’d have to be, right?), but the abuse is real, too. You’re doing all the healthy things to fight fair and communicate better and figure this out, and it’s not working. So you are starting to tell the story, the textbook story, the one that says “My husband is so great except for _____ (all the times & ways he abuses me).” This story is being narrated by the very wise and secret part of yourself that knows that this is wrong, that you don’t deserve to be talked to this way. That part has been trying to lie low and enjoy the good parts and not make any big moves, but it’s starting to wake up and sound the warning bells. It’s starting to tell the truth.

I think it’s time to do a few things. This is a really good rundown of steps and resources for people who are trying to leave an abusive situation. I want to highlight/recommend some specific things for you:

1 ) Take some steps to protect your digital privacy. For example, only use a private browsing window on your computer when you look at this thread or anything we link in the post or this discussion. Clear out your browsing history regularly. Use two-step authorization for passwords. Check for key-logging software or spyware. Change passwords on your phone & social media accounts. Make sure home surveillance and security stuff can’t spy on you.

2) Read Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. Do not read this anywhere or on any device your husband has access to and do not discuss the things in the book with your husband. The book is for you. So you can see patterns. So you can have expert confirmation that you are not the problem.

3) Keep going to your individual counselor. Tell that person what you told me. Tell that person, “I’m thinking of leaving my husband, but I’m terrified of how to do that logistically and financially, especially because my support resources are so thin right now, can you help me make a plan?” See if your counselor can connect you to resources.

4) Talk to a domestic violence counselor specifically about making a safety plan. This whole “he only abuses me when his abandonment issues flare up” pattern is very dangerous, and we know that abusers escalate when their victims leave them. When you leave, it’s probably going to have to be like this: You will be telling him about a decision you’ve already made, on your way out the door (or possibly already from a safe distance), using money you’ve put aside/with all your identification & important documents that you’ve squirreled away (hopefully stashed somewhere outside the house), with a lawyer you’ve hired to handle the divorce. There is no conversation y’all have over time where you mutually agree to break up or where he buys in and agrees to let you go or see things your way (He can’t even drive for 45 minutes or walk down the street without your attention on him). You’re going to have to keep secrets in order to keep yourself safe, so get a trained person to walk you through that. You’re not alone.

5) Don’t do couple’s counseling again. Joint counseling with an emotional abuser will just become another venue for him to abuse you. I think that your counselor saw the situation clearly, that’s why she recommended individual counseling. It was to make sure you had that resource for yourself and to protect you. She did the right thing, good job, counselor! And you did the right thing by getting a therapist. Good job, you!

6) You work from home – that’s good! That means you could probably work remotely from anyplace you call home. If you’re not ready to leave yet, that’s okay. Keep working hard at your job, seek whatever job training & promotions and opportunity you can, squirrel away some money, make sure your job is an asset you have in your corner. It will make it easier to leave when you do go if you have reliable work.

7) See if your job has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and what that entails, especially because sometimes those give you access to legal consulting services. There are organizations that help people navigate divorce, friends have had good luck with this one. You’ll need to talk to a divorce lawyer. That person will have a lot of good and relevant advice about money & assets, which you will need to know.

8) You don’t have many friends where you live. What about old friends, from where you lived before? You’re not close to your parents, what about aunts/uncles/cousins/siblings? Do you keep up with people on social media? Can you put a little more time into cultivating & nurturing those friendships? I know it’s tricky to tell people hard personal stuff, but can you think of someone from your life who would let you crash with them for a month or so if you needed a safe place to land? You seem really cool, I bet you have more people in your corner than you think.

9) If you can, as soon as you can, get a weekly Outside The House hobby or activity that is only yours. Partly to meet people where you live. Partly to provide cover for apartment-searching/library research/divorce attorney meetings. Partly to give yourself a break from this guy.

10) Edited to add: If you are a person who can get pregnant and you don’t want to be pregnant, lock down your contraception situation with something that doesn’t require his cooperation and can’t be sabotaged. Birth control sabotage is a thing controlling people do.

11) The rest is de-escalation and biding your time. You need to survive what he’s doing until you can get away. That might mean mentally adding ‘you think’ to his abusive and mean statements. That might mean sometimes saying ‘ok, you’re right, I’m sorry’ even when you don’t mean that. It might mean you suck it up for those 10 minute commute chats for a while because you’re saving your energy for leaving. Even if you behave perfectly (as he’s defined it), you’re still going to have conflicts because he is going to look for ways to pick at you. You might have to fake it, a lot, in the name of getting free. I’m so sorry. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself.

12) When you go into stealth/hiding/biding time mode and start really planning to go, things may seem to get better between you. You’ll be less worn down, you’ll engage less, so things will seem to de-escalate and you’ll fight less. This is normal, but it doesn’t mean that things have changed. Once someone abuses you, you can’t count on the good times. Your husband has shown you that he can’t even do the most basic stuff  (hire his own therapist, find a way to pass 45 minutes in the car by himself, walk down a sidewalk without being mean to you) when it conflicts with his pattern of controlling you. He’d rather argue with you for hours than ever examine his own behavior or take steps to soothe his own feelings. He has choices about how he deals with negative feelings about abandonment, and every time he chooses to unload on you and treat his feelings like the only important feelings.

I know you love him and if I had a way to fix him, I promise, I would tell you. I don’t. There isn’t. He has to fix himself, he has to want to fix himself, and one thing we know about abusers is that if they ever change (rare), the changes don’t happen while they still have access to their victims. If you tell him you will leave unless he does ______ and start making moves that he can see toward leaving, he will do exactly as much ______ as he needs to to get you to drop your guard and give him access to you again, and then he will go right back to his old behaviors AND punish you for getting out of line.

I think you wrote to me, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups,” because you knew I would tell you that it’s not your fault and you knew (on some level) that I would advise you to leave. And I’m so glad you did. Again, you are the sole boss of whether you leave, and when you leave, but I think that leaving is really the only way that the bad things stop. I know it’s so scary, and lonely, and sad, but you don’t deserve the way he’s treating you. You’re not a bad human, or “the real abuser,” or “a quitter.” You’re just a patient, loving person who’s tired of being controlled, and that looks pretty normal and reasonable from here.

Sending you love and strength.

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